Martin Amis's Koba is another exhibitionist work-yet endearing and instructive. A Harry Pottering among the ruins of 20th-century political illusionsby Frederic Raphael / October 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2002 issue of Prospect Magazine
Book: Koba the Dread Author: Martin Amis Price: Jonathan Cape £16.99 What have we here? On the falsely smiling, front-covered face of its “hero,” a study of Joseph Stalin, written by a désabusé stylist. Has the author of The War Against Cliché shunned the obvious and found a good word for an old tyrant? He managed to make comedy, of a kind, out of Auschwitz, in Time’s Arrow, didn’t he? (Did he?) Here, Martin Amis eschews show-boating: his Stalin is the monster we all know about, plus a sprinkle of chef’s home-grown ginger. Is there anything that still needs saying about the man we wartime schoolboys were encouraged to call Uncle Joe? Martin Amis seems to be no linguist (he boasts, modestly, to Christopher Hitchens-of whom more later-of having mastered a sentence or two of Spanish, but only to make it easier to brush off importunate locals during family hols in Uruguay) so the “several yards” of secondary sources which he has consulted are, presumably, all available in English. It is not what he tells us that is new, but-as bestselling fame requires-the way he tells it. Novelist, provocateur, critico-celebrity, memoirist, Amis evidently needs to be present in his narrative to convince himself that he is not faking it. His speciality is to take things personally. Behind Mart loom the figures not only of his father, Kingsley (you may have heard of him) and of his recently dead sister Sally, but also those of “The Hitch” and, more distantly, Eric Hobsbawm, the academic, card-carrying historian decorated by this government, who claims-with a j’y suis j’y reste air of Lillian Hellmanesque integrity-to regard the deaths of millions of innocent people as a worthwhile “experiment” on the way to the bravest of new worlds. David Aaronovitch, chiding Amis, refers to his own father’s “personal sacrifice to the cause,” quite as if being an English party official was a sort of charity work. Who would have thought it entailed endorsing mass murder? Aaronovitch challenges readers of the Independent to call his old man “stupid.” Would he prefer to think he was sired by a callous, credulous apparatchik? Bad philosophies sponsor bad men, who use faith as a warrant for dictatorship. Koba the Dread is, it seems, a still-relevant bestiary. History is too serious, and too farcical, to be left to historians. How many of them notice that the masks of tragedy and of comedy often depend from the same peg? To detect ambiguity requires character-reading that may lack documentary sources; hence the tendency to linear models of motivation. Was it in a parody of them that Alan Taylor, in The Origins of the Second World War, insisted that Hitler’s policies were in the routine tradition of German chauvinism? As with Hitler, so with Stalin (as Alan Bullock was the first to emphasise): good old Joe, another five-foot-four titan (Amis’s figures), was given credit for the industrialisation of cruel, backward old Russia. After Peter the Great, Joe the Great. Western intellectuals hurried to shake his red, red hand. If Stalin was regarded, in conservative quarters, as worse than Hitler (and, in “progressive” quarters, vice versa), everything changed in 1941. Stalin was translated, malgré lui, into one of the trinity, along with Winston and FDR. Turning a blind eye was then a drill practised on every allied parade ground. The wartime alliance is one reason for a residue of indulgence towards the Soviet Union, which almost no one feels for Nazi Germany. The other is still brandished by Doris Lessing and old comrades: that there was something innately noble in Marxism. The rash of soft spots for Stalinism, and for its polar other, Trotskyism, endured until the collapse of the whole Marxist-Leninist, OK, praxis (let’s hear it again, faintly, for Marcusian jargoneering). Nostalgia for revolution lingered on in keepers of Trotsky’s flame (such as the hagiographical Isaac Deutscher). Amis makes properly short work of the Prophet’s alleged humanity. Trotsky has benefited from his literary sophistication and a respect for art which Stalin never began to match. Does his Jewishness also play some part in reprieving Leon from the obloquy visited on Beria, Molotov and the others? Amis gives such ample evidence of philosemitism that he feels, rightly, no obligation to spare either Trotsky or the repulsive Kaganovich. He is almost too indulgent towards Zinoviev and Kamenev, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Bolshevism, whose ambition exceeded their ruthlessness. Jews were not rare in revolutionary circles. In their dream of a classless Russia, antisemitism was one of the first things scheduled to wither away. Trotsky notes how dismayed he was when, at the height of his fame as creator of the Red Army, he heard workers talking about Zhids. With no other hope of salvation, Stalin’s Jews were the ductile servants of tyranny. Versatility makes some Jews able linguists (and mimics); it can also render them glib exponents of new logics. To embrace a new “scientific” and universal world view will, they hope, exempt them from exception. If they could be good henchman, Jews made even better scapegoats. Had Stalin survived to procure it, his senile antisemitism might well have issued in a second Shoah. Until recently, Kingsley Amis’s friend (and now Martin’s), the passionately anti-communist Robert Conquest, was vilified on the left for his bad taste and putative bad arithmetic-in fact, he underestimated how many were done to death in the gulag-until he was grudgingly vindicated when the wall came tumbling down. Even now, Tony Benn probably has more admirers than Conquest. Benn still believes in something: socialism, and, I daresay, the tooth fairy. Il faut pas désespérer the lumpen B-stream. Is nostalgie de la boue part of what draws intellectuals to the cult of the proles? The Hitch confesses, when pressed, that he craves the rule of yobs; rough traders find thugs so much more stimulating than squeamish liberals. Graham Greene preferred the Lubyanka prison to the Plaza hotel (he pretended). Pinkie craves hell fire. Cultural historians tend to assume that the gulag was the corrupt fruit of some deep philosophy. Has anyone considered how much fun it is to persecute people? Give the resentful and the self-doubting a licence (and a salary) to humiliate those more intelligent or older than themselves, and they will queue up to kick the shit out of them. What regime was ever short of recruits to torture officially nominated suspects into confessing whatever heresy their gaolers were commissioned to wish on them? The swastika is a logo still guaranteed to stimulate sales. So the Nazis had a vile script; they had ace art directors, and tailors. As for killing and being killed, the enlivening thrill of other people’s deaths keeps us watching Sky News, CNN, and so on. Never mind the joy of sex, the joy of schadenfreude lasts longer. Amis may be right (but isn’t) that “after Auschwitz no more laughter” is more accurate than Adorno’s “no more poetry.” That there is long-running laughter in Hitler is proved by the hit Broadway musical The Producers. Mel Brooks may have concocted a better specific against the second coming of the tritagonist’s “darlink boy” than any amount of pious denunciation in Kershaw’s Hitler. However, Brooks’s humour doesn’t touch on the camps. Wisely: the appallingly well-intentioned Life Is Beautiful is as unfunny as giving its author the Oscar. To assess Nazism or communism as serious alternative philosophies does them too much honour. It has often been done, by the best and the brightest. Amis says that “the overwhelming majority of (western) intellectuals” supported Stalin. His index conspicuously omits Bertrand Russell (who hated Lenin’s blood-thirsty snigger), Malcolm Muggeridge (who rumbled the fraudulent paradise early in the 1930s) or André Gide, an improbably candid visitor who returned to tell the sour truth, despite being hounded by the then very influential PCF. Not a few intellectuals also went along with the Nazis, including major figures in the Best of British. Amis often describes party hacks as “untalented,” but talent supplied no exemption. Left and right, treasonous clerks lined up, and probably will again, behind monsters and mountebanks. Joining the party offered a quick course in omniscience (all the answers were contained in one line), plus access to a new elite which promised power, and privileges. The Soviet nomenklatura advertised how the last could be first, if rarely on a long lease. Martin Amis is without illusions about the quotient of clay in the average famous foot. His post-mod brand of club sandwich narrative-a slice of reportage, a slice of autobio-is particularly suited to expose the pettiness of the grand. Yet the lovely darts cannot conceal the decency of his conclusion. Is that why he spruced it up with tales from the Amis family scrapbook? He even breaks the now-it-can-be-told news that Kingsley-later “red-baiter number one”-was a member of the party from 1941 until-clock this!-1956, three years after Lucky Jim. If Kingsley eventually swung heavily to the right, he did his “baiting” without running the risks which made Arthur Koestler, a serious anti-communist with serious enemies, wary of approaching the iron curtain for fear of assassins. Amis pà¨re was never more than a parochial tease: nothing he said or did risked his best-selling reputation. Lucky Jim became the seminal short course in how and why to screw a classy bint: you not only get your leg over but also a leg up out of the sticks. Little regarded at first (J Maclaren-Ross gave it a dismissive notice), its author supplied the What Is To Be Done? of upwardly mobile red-brickers in the later 1950s. Would Kingsley’s enfant terrible ever have embarked on what the blurbist (did his publisher make Mart sign his own “confession” of excellence?) calls “Perhaps the best short course ever in Stalin,” had he never discovered that his iconoclastic father was-I suppose he’s not putting us on-a card-carrying Red for a decade and a half? On first reading, it seems naïve for Amis fils to alternate between being a Sovietologists’ epitomator-he spices his (here) unassuming prose with fancy locutions such as “gravamen,” “lecteurial” and “cognomen”-and a memoirist, winsome with blue remembered gaucheries. Take the text as a whole, however, rather than as a biography with egocentric trimmings, and you realise that his personal mission is not only to exhume Stalin’s reputation and, as they did with Cromwell’s corpse, drag it round town on a hurdle. No, what primes his indignation is the left-wing gall of those old New Statesman chums-Hitchens and James Fenton-en tàªte-in whose intellectual troika he himself once figured. At a later, poignant point, Amis uses “susceptibly” as a free-standing adverb: “I stood, susceptibly, by the door.” Is he best understood as unguardedly susceptible to stylish influences, and apt convulsively to renounce his crushes before they crush him? This disposes him to conduct his life in a sequence of fervent treacheries. Only recently, the Hitch was his hatchetman-for-all-seasons. Asked to review Amis’s Experience in the Los Angeles Times, I was critical, but never parti pris. After my piece appeared in the paper, however, the literary editor was informed by Hitchens that he was out of the Amis social loop. Amitiés littéraires rarely stand up under pressure: Hemingway did not seek to stop the NKVD from murdering John Dos Passos in Madrid. It makes you wonder how bold Rory Bremner or lan Hislop would be if anything more dangerous than repeat fees followed their daring send-ups. Amis’s latest change of line is (somewhat) to divorce the Hitch. He is affectionately denounced as a shameless “comrade” chronically addicted to making the worse appear the better cause. Will their bonding survive this volley of frankness? Or will the Hitch be as unamused as another old New Statesman, Julian Barnes, was by Amis’s idea of abiding friendship? Need we care? I made six pages of notes on Koba the Dread, but hesitate to parade specific quibbles and plaudits. Those yards of books in Amis’s bibliography could have included so many more that it is best to look on his Stalin as a primer for those who think that history began with Blair’s accession to power. The level of intent is didactically modest. Perhaps we should read the are-you-with-me? prose as parodic pro bono anti-agitprop, a sort of Harry Pottering among the ruins of 20th-century political illusions and vileness (the latter following very closely on the former). Koba is, as to be expected from a sequel to Experience, self-revealing to the point of exhibitionism, yet both endearing and callow: a young persons’ guide to the ungolden olden days.